Sitting around the table in Clinton Webb's office, the scientists can tick them off on their fingers
"Carlos ... Allen ... John ..." said Dr. Webb, the chairman of the Department of Physiology at the Medical College of Georgia, as he counted the researchers nationwide who have received program project grants to study hypertension. "There's probably less than 10."
Now Dr. Webb and MCG can be on the same first-name basis as those scientists after landing a prestigious National Institutes of Health Program Project Grant on hypertension.
MCG secured the five-year, nearly $11 million grant to look at the connection between inflammatory elements known as cytokines and the subtle interplay between hormones, genes and blood vessels that leads to heart disease.
Researchers have known for years that a rise in levels of C-reactive protein increases the risk of heart attack, Dr. Webb said. And a certain cytokine called interleukin-6 stimulates C-reactive protein, he said.
Angiotensin II, a hormone that elevates blood pressure, also stimulates production of interleukin-6.
"So the question is: Is that association mechanistically involved in blood pressure elevation?" Dr. Webb said.
"Is there really a cause-and-effect link between these things?" MCG researcher Michael W. Brands said.
He is working with mice that lack the gene to make interleukin-6, and he has found in preliminary studies that they have the same blood pressure elevation and sustained response to stress as normal mice.
"Without the (cytokine), their blood pressure doesn't go up as much," Dr. Brands said. "We want to know the mechanism."
Dr. Webb is looking at how the blood vessels respond to the inflammatory molecules and the interaction with destructive free radicals.
John Imig is looking at another impact from cytokines in reducing elements that normally protect the kidney.
"Kidney injury is one of the main problems that occurs in cardiovascular disease and hypertension," Dr. Imig said.
As MCG's cardiology program is rebuilt, the researchers hope to bring in some clinical researchers, which is part of the flexibility that the large awards provide.
"If we could actually test in patients if what we're finding is true, then we may be able to predict the outcomes for patients," Dr. Imig said. "We might find the same marker that always keeps popping up."
This kind of grant is the type of award that brings notice, Dr. Brands said.
"Everybody knows who has the main program project grants in the country," he said. "The PPG is one of those things that really puts you on the map."
It is the second such grant awarded to MCG in the past two years. The Georgia Prevention Institute got a similar grant to look at stress response and the development of hypertension.
More importantly, it is the sort of thing that could build on itself if it attracts more students and strengthens the graduate program, which could result in more papers being published and more grant money coming in, Dr. Brands said.
"It's positive feedback," he said.
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213